This might be a little off-topic from our normal focus on one player, one DM Dungeons and Dragons, but many of the ideas for making D&D work at school also apply to playing duet-style, so here we go!
For the last several years, I have had the honor of being the faculty adviser for a tabletop RPG club at my high school. Running D&D with student-age players within the constraints of school takes some special considerations.
Anthology over Serial
Unless your situation is wildly different than mine, you will find it very difficult to get the same group of players around the table every single session.
For this reason, I have found that shorter stand-alone adventures offer more fun and suffer less from continuity problems than longer adventures. Resources like Tales from the Yawning Portal or the wonderful Uncaged Anthologies are excellent examples. They are rich and interesting experiences that are not necessarily tied together. Some are shorter, some are longer, but a player coming into the middle of an arch will not need three years worth of context to be effective and have fun with the story.
Choosing to go stand-alone over epic arch for your school D&D games will also save the DM a lot of prep and time. The DM can just wash their hands of the last adventure and doesn’t (necessarily) have to weave past threads back through to push towards the greater scheme. If you are involved with education, you know that time is everything. Prep=time. Less prep=less time=more happiness. This goes for teachers who might be DMing, but also students who DM.
All for One, One for all
With a thousand different clubs and sports, homework assignments and study groups, or work and social commitments pulling our students in a thousand different directions every day after school, it is best to prep a foundation that can withstand a changing cast of player characters.
My first year, I attempted to run a group through the awesome Lost Mines of Phandelver adventure from WotC. I had a rather small, moderately dedicated bunch starting out. However, word of our fun got around and it quickly grew to an unmanageable and inconsistent group of twelve (gulp!). Needless to say, we got little done and I back-flipped my way through insane narrative gymnastics trying to explain a key character’s absence with zero warning.
The second year, with a wizardly rind on me, I decided that the club would be an adventurer’s guild and all characters were loyal members.
This decision still allowed for a lot of variety and agency for individual characters, but gave everyone a baseline reason to be working together and a pretense for being friendly. Students were still able to go as deep as they cared to with their character backstory and still had memorable RP encounters, but we saved a good chunk of play time since we didn’t have to RP the decision to work together. It was (as it usually is) a foregone conclusion.
It served to create a common goal that could stretch across multiple sessions, or dissolve after only one. It wasn’t difficult to explain why Gorshnag the Barbarian Gnome wasn’t there, he just had to run off to another mission or was recuperating in the tavern, or… you get the idea. Making everyone mercenary members of an adventuring guild and not necessarily a core party on a larger narrative arch allows for players to come and go in the middle of a session as will happen in a school-club setting.
In the later years we ended up with a blend. We had the guild for drop in sessions and still facilitated and supported a space for people to gather with a core group to play narrative adventures. By this time, I was using the time to grade papers and only occasionally running a game or answering a question.
Fast and Loose
As a Dungeon Master, I like to think that I follow the rules rather closely. I believe that the rules function to create difficult situations for the players. These problems push the players to the wonderful highs and terrible lows that we love in D&D. Awesome!
However, your students will likely care less about that tension and more about hanging out with their friends and having a fun time at the end of a long and stressful school day. My student players, even the best ones, rarely had a firm grasp of even the basic rules. Generally, they were there to have fun and tell stories and do ridiculous things.
At first, I was rather annoyed. What about my Gritty-Realism Curse of Strahd campaign that I wanted to run?!? I came to the slow realization that it wasn’t really about what I wanted to run. I had set the dial to Nosferatu, but by the end of the first session we were much more in Young Frankenstein territory. And it was a blast!
We had a growing club consisting of 4-5 tables and one (maybe two) source books for everyone to share. If we stopped to look up every rules question, we would have never made it out of the starting tavern. There simply weren’t enough books to go around.
Recognize the unique reality of a school game and do your best to maximize the fun. They are not going to remember if a lightning bolt spell should be 7d6 or 8d6. They are going to remember that they vaporized the werewolf eating their best-friend’s face off and saving the day. With school D&D, it’s the story they tell and the memories they make that are way more important than the rules.
Be adaptive, Be Welcoming
Finally, your group, your school, your kids, your temperament, your experience, your resources… these are all going to have a profound effect on what is best for your school based Dungeons and Dragons club. Try to be as sensitive as you can to the subtle feedback you are getting from your students. Tailor the experience to what they need and what you can offer.
Don’t forget that you are also giving constant feedback to your students. Sometimes this feedback is verbal and intentional. A lot of times it is non-verbal. Communicate in every way that you are able that D&D is for everyone. Communicate that the “right way” to play D&D is the way that uplifts and empowers.
At the end of the day, the most important thing is that you create a welcoming place where students feel heard and safe and valued. Hopefully your school tabletop club will grow to be as diverse and amazing as ours.
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